State Leadership Conference

Next time you're on an airplane and your seatmate asks what you do, put your professional jargon aside and tell a story. That's one of the best ways to explain the role of psychology in disease prevention and management and personalize mental health issues, said panelists at the 2009 State Leadership Conference.

"Storytelling builds relationships and trust," said Brenda Foster, vice president of account services at Vanguard Communications, the public relations firm that helped APA develop its Mind/Body Health campaign. "It also persuades people ... much more than just handing them facts, quoting policy or talking about promising practices."

Sharing personal anecdotes during media interviews or other public speaking events can also strengthen the chances that your message will stick and also make you seem more approachable, she said. For example, if you need to explain the benefits of mental health parity to a reporter, legislator or business owner, avoid long-winded discussions about government legislation and insurance co-payments, she advised. Instead, focus on a timely news story such as the economic crisis, and share how it's affecting your family. Then explain that many other people are similarly stressed, but thanks to the new law, it's now more affordable for them to get help from a psychologist.

Jennifer Kelly, PhD, director of the Atlanta Center for Behavioral Medicine and a member of APA's Committee for the Advancement of Professional Practice, said she uses Bible parables to engage with people at health fairs held at churches. She draws passersby to her clinic's booth by making small talk about the weather or local news, then moves on to topics such as stress and how she often feels as though there aren't enough hours in the day to complete everything she needs to do. These topics often prompt people to open up about their own concerns, she says.

"Storytelling is our way of sharing our wealth of experience," Kelly said. "It shows people that it's OK to talk to us and reveal their own stories because we are like them."

Clinical psychologist David Palmiter, PhD, communications chair of the Pennsylvania Psychological Association and a psychology professor at Marywood University, discussed the ethical guidelines psychologists must adhere to when speaking to the public or media. He warned against providing snap diagnoses about a person's mental health and offered tips on how to redirect interviews that might be heading into questionable ethical territory.

"Instead of saying, 'I can't answer that,' which may make the person feel badly or not want to come back to us, we can ask, 'Can I change the question and see if that works for you?'" Palmiter said.

To request a Mind/Body Health Toolkit, e-mail Practice PR.